Monday, March 14, 2016

Where Black and White Meets Color

Sometimes grammar can just be too much.  

That’s why this week, we did something a little different for my beginner ESL class at the Indo American Center. After learning the names of various fruits—banana, cherry, pineapple, kiwi— the students and I did a fruits basket coloring page.

Adult coloring boks are kind of a fad right now, one that I so far haven’t really gotten into. But the students really seem to enjoy it, and as I sat coloring with them, I started to see why. 

In a world where problems can seem so nebulous and events so random, the structure of coloring in the lines is refreshing. The only decision you have to make is, should I do this peach first or the pear? Should my grapes be red or green? There is something very satisfying about taking a half hour out of the week and letting your world shrink to the size of a piece of paper, your only task to take something drab and colorless and make it beautiful.

This is especially important for the class I teach because most of the students are refugees.  Not only are they trying to navigate the mammoth task of living in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language or have a strong support system, but many of them are also recovering from the whatever traumatic events forced them to leave home. One student described being tortured in a Burmese prison, pulling down the collar of his shirt to reveal long scars puckering the skin of his chest. He used his hands and face to supplement the few English words he could summon up—no money, pain, hungry— describing men shooting guns, people dying in front of him. For him, coloring provided an opportunity to temporarily escape from problems bigger than I can even conceptualize. 

Of all the students though, Linda enjoyed coloring the most. Linda is from Iraq, a member of one of the Christian minority groups that have been systematically persecuted in that country. Once the avid note-taker and vocal participant, the last two weeks she could hardly make it through a class period without crying. Today, though, she stayed in her seat long after all the other students had gone, determined to finish every last apple leaf and cherry stem. I sat with her and we colored together in silence for nearly twenty minutes. This was the first time I had seen her smile in two weeks.  

That was a really significant moment for me. There’s really so little I can do for Linda.. I can’t even ask her what’s wrong in words that she can understand. But at least I could give her a little bit of space and time away from whatever terrible things make a grown woman come to her English class crying every day. 

I used to have this idea that I needed to do something big and grand to change the world. However, my experience this year is teaching me more and more every day that making the world a better place  really happens in ways so small and mundane they can seem like nothing. 

In other news, this weekend I attended the St. Patrick's Day parade (featuring troupes of bagpipers, Irish dancers, and various marching bands) and witnessed the Chicago River dyed bright green. It seemed like the entire city went nuts for St. Patrick's Day, Irish and non-Irish alike. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Personal Growth Opportunities

So far in this blog I’ve written a lot about positive things and not a lot about the things that have challenged me and helped me grow. With the kids especially, there are times when situations arise where it’s hard to know how to respond. There’s one in particular that sticks out in my mind that I wish I had handled differently.

All the kids were sitting together at a table coloring. It was Kelile’s 6th birthday. She always likes to be in the spotlight, but on this afternoon she was positively glowing, reminding us over and over “It’s my birthday!” and demanding special privileges (“I get to sit in the middle because it’s my birthday, right? I don’t have to help clean up because it’s my birthday, right?”). When her best friend Aditi walked in, Kelile burst out, “Aditi you have to come to my birthday party!” To which one of the other girls replied, “Aditi’s grandmother won’t let her come to your birthday party. We are Indians, and Indians never go to black people’s birthday parties.” [Kelile is black, Aditi is Indian].

Of course I should have said something. I remember my mouth involuntarily dropping open. I was so shocked. I already knew this sentiment (lighter is better, darker is worse) existed within the Indian community, hearkening back to the British colonial period and maybe even earlier to the Aryan empire and the advent of the caste system. But I have never heard anything so blatantly prejudiced, especially not from the mouth of a little child.

I knew right away that this was coming from her parents. I didn’t want to embarrass the girl in front of all the other kids by calling her and her family racist. I didn’t want to punish her if she didn’t even know what she was saying. And I never want to put the kids in a position where they have to decide who to believe, me or their parents. So I didn’t say anything. All I did was stand there gaping like a fish before clumsily trying to change the subject.

Kelile didn’t say anything either. She just looked a little bewildered. Normally Kelile has no problem asking a million questions when she doesn’t understand something, but this time she just went back to her coloring without saying a word.

I was reminded of the incident again this week while tutoring at another after-school program where the kids are mostly Hispanic. One of the sixth grade boys came in looking upset. “I really hate that guy,” he said. “Who do you hate?” I asked. “Donald Trump. He hates Mexicans, he wants to kick them out of the country. All my friends are Mexican.” It surprised me to hear a sixth grader talking about politics. It surprised me even more to hear the very genuine hurt in his voice. In my experience, when a sixth grade boy is feeling hurt, he rarely lets on.

But then I really thought about what it must feel like, to be hearing this kind of message demonizing you and your community from a major presidential candidate. That would be bad enough. But even worse, I think, would to hear the American people agreeing with him.

After all the kids had gone home, I found a crumpled piece of notebook paper while I was picking up the classroom. On it someone had drawn a gesticulating Trump in crayon with the caption “We’re building a wall.” It made me so profoundly sad.  I folded it and put it in my pocket. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed he had drawn around Trump a full stick-person audience, and every one of them was wearing a big, adoring smile.

This made me think again about Kelile’s birthday party incident, and how I didn’t say anything when the Indian girls were talking about refusing to associate with black people. How hurtful it must have been for Kelile to hear that, even if she didn’t fully understand what was going on. And how hurtful it must have been to see me letting it happen, like a smiling stick figure at a Donald Trump rally.

Here at the monastery, the sisters gave me a calendar for Christmas featuring quotes from famous spiritual leaders. The month of February has a quote from Gandhi which reads, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.” It’s easy to agree with that while I am sitting in my comfy chair in the library writing this blog post, but harder to live it out in the moment, when a tense situation presents itself. I’m glad, though, that I have been exposed to this kind of tense situation, even if I didn’t respond correctly at the time. I believe it is just preparation for my next opportunity to non-cooperate with evil. 

Note: I changed the kids' names in this post to be respectful of them and their privacy.